Workers’ Councils and the Economics of a Self-Managed Society

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(1922 - 1997)
Cornelius Castoriadis[a] (Greek: Κορνήλιος Καστοριάδης;[b] 11 March 1922 – 26 December 1997) was a Greek-French philosopher, social critic, economist, psychoanalyst, author of The Imaginary Institution of Society, and co-founder of the Socialisme ou Barbarie group. His writings on autonomy and social institutions have been influential in both academic and activist circles. (From :


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Workers’ Councils and the Economics of a Self-Managed Society

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This document contains 12 sections, with 36,880 words or 240,405 characters.

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0. Our Preface by Solidarity Group (London); March 1972 To the best of our knowledge there have been no serious attempts by modern libertarian revolutionaries to grapple with the economic and political problems of a totally self-managed society. What might the structure, social relations and decision-making institutions of such a society look like, in an advanced industrial country, in the second half of the twentieth century? Is the technological basis of modern life so complex that all talk of workers’ management of production can be dismissed as pure “utopia” (as both the beneficiaries – and most of the victims – of the present social order would have us believe)? Or, on the contrary, isn’t this allegation itself the real mystification? Doesn’t historical experience, and in particular the working class experience of recent decades, prove the very opposite? Don’t the... (From :

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1. Introduction The development of modern society and what has happened to the working class movement over the last 100 years (and, in particular, since 1917) have compelled us radically to revise most of the ideas on which that movement had been based. Several decades have gone by since the Russian Revolution. From that revolution it is not socialism that emerged, but a new and monstrous form of exploiting society in which the bureaucracy replaced the private owners of capital and “the plan” took the place of the “free market.” There are several basic ingredients for the revision we propose. The first is to assimilate the vast experience of the Russian revolution and of what happened to it. The next is to grasp the real significance of the Hungarian Workers’ Councils and other uprisings against the bureaucracy. But there are other ingredients to the proposed revision. A look at modern capitalism, and at the... (From :

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2. The Crisis of Capitalism The capitalist organization of social life (both East and West) creates a constantly renewed crisis in every aspect of human activity. This crisis appears most intensely in the realm of production, although in its essence, the problem is the same in other fields, i.e., whether one is dealing with the family, with education, with culture, with politics or with international relations. Everywhere, the capitalist structure of society imposes on people an organization of their lives that is external to them. It organizes things in the absence of those most directly concerned and often against their aspirations and interests. This is but another way of saying that capitalism divides society into a narrow stratum of order-givers (whose function is to decide and organize everything) and the vast majority of the population who are reduced to carrying out (executing) the decisions of those in power. As a result of this very... (From :

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3. Basic Principles of Socialist Society Socialist society implies the organization by people themselves of every aspect of their social life. The establishment of socialism therefore entails the immediate abolition of the fundamental division of society into a stratum of order-givers and a mass of order-takers. The content of the socialist reorganization of society is first of all workers’ management of production. The working class has repeatedly staked its claim to such management and struggled to achieve it at the high points of its historic actions: in Russia in 1917–18, in Italy in 1920, in Spain in 1936, in Hungary in 1956. Workers’ Councils, based on the place of work, are the form workers’ self-management will probably take and the institution most likely to foster its growth. Workers’ management means the power of the local Workers’ Councils and ultimately, at the level of society as... (From :

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4. Socialism and the Transformation of Work Socialism will only be brought about by the autonomous action of the majority of the population. Socialist society is nothing other than the self-organization of this autonomy. Socialism both presupposes this autonomy, and helps to develop it. But if this autonomy is people’s conscious domination over all their activities, it is clear that we can’t just concern ourselves with political autonomy. Political autonomy is but a derivative aspect of what is the central content and problem of socialism: to institute the domination of mankind over the work process. A purely political autonomy would be meaningless. One can’t imagine a society where people would be slaves in production every day of the week, and then enjoy Sundays of political freedom. The idea that socialist production or a socialist economy could be run, at any particular level, by managers (themselves s... (From :

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5. Workers’ Management: The Factory a. Functions It is well known that workers can organize their own work at the level of a workshop or of part of a factory. Bourgeois industrial sociologists not only recognize this fact, but point out that “primary groups” of workers often get on with their job better if management leaves them alone, and doesn’t constantly try to insert itself into the production process. How can the work of these various “primary groups” – or of various shops and sections – be coordinated? Bourgeois theoreticians stress that the present managerial apparatus – whose formal job it is to ensure such a coordination – is not really up to the task: it has no real grip on the workers, and is, itself, torn by internal stresses. But having “demolished” the present set-up by their criticisms, modern industrial sociologists have nothing to put in its place. And... (From :

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6. The Content of Workers’ Management at Factory Level It will help us to discuss this problem if we, rather schematically, differentiate between the static and the dynamic aspects of workers’ management, between what will be immediately possible, at the very onset of socialist production, and what will become possible after a relatively short interval, as socialist production develops and as human domination over all stages of the productive process rapidly increases. For the sake of clarity, we will first describe workers’ management at factory level in a static way. We will then consider how it will develop, and how this development, itself, will constantly expand the areas of local freedom. a. Immediate Content Looked at in a static way, the overall plan might allocate to a given enterprise a target to be achieved within a given time (we will examine further on how such targets might be determined under c... (From :

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7. General Problems of Socialist Economy a. Simplification and Rationalization of Data Socialist economy implies that the producers themselves will consciously manage all economic activity. This management will be exercised at all levels, and, in particular, at the overall or central level. It is illusory to believe that bureaucracies (even “controlled” bureaucracies) left to themselves could guide the economy towards socialism. Such bureaucracies could only lead society towards new forms of exploitation. It is also wrong to think that “automatic” objective mechanisms could be established, which, like the automatic pilots of a modern jet aircraft, could at each moment direct the economy in the desired direction. The same impossibilities arise whether one considers an “enlightened” bureaucracy or some electronic super-computer, namely that the key problems are human ones. Any plan pre-supposes a fundamental decision on... (From :

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8. The Management of the Economy We have spelled out the implications of workers’ management at the level of a particular enterprise. These consist of the abolition of any separate managerial apparatus and of the assumption of managerial authority by the workers themselves, organized in Workers’ Councils and in General Assemblies of one or more shops or offices, or of a whole enterprise. Workers’ management of the economy as a whole also implies that the management of the economy is not vested in the hands of a specific managerial stratum, but that it belongs to organized collectivities of producers. What we have outlined in the previous sections shows that democratic management is perfectly feasible. Its basic assumption is the clarification of data and the mass utilization of what modern techniques have now made possible. It implies the conscious use of a series of devices and mechanisms (such as the genuine c... (From :

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9. The Management of Society We have already discussed the type of change that would be brought about by the “vertical” and “horizontal” cooperation of Workers’ Councils, a cooperation secured through industrial councils composed of delegates from various places of work. A similar regional cooperation would be established through Councils representing all the units of a region. Cooperation will finally be necessary on a national level, for all the activities of society, whether economic or not. A central body, which would be the expression and the emanation of the producers themselves, would ensure the general tasks of economic coordination, inasmuch as they were not dealt with by the plan itself – or more precisely, inasmuch as the plan will have to be frequently or constantly amended (the very decision to suggest that it should be amended would have to be initiated somewhere). Such a body would also coordinate acti... (From :

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10. Problems of the Transition The society we are talking about is not communism, which supposes total freedom, the complete control by people over all their own activities, the absence of any constraint, total abundance – and human beings of a totally different kind. The society we are talking about is socialism, and socialism is the only transitional society between a regime of exploitation and communism. What is not socialism (as here defined) isn’t a transitional society, but an exploiting society. We might say that any exploiting society is a society of transition, but of transition to another form of exploitation. The transition to communism is only possible if exploitation is immediately abolished, for otherwise, exploitation continues and feeds on itself. The abolition of exploitation is only possible when every separate stratum of order-givers ceases to exist, for in modern societies it is the di... (From :

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Notations by Cornelius Castoriadis Annotations by <em>Solidarity</em> “Production” here meaning the shop-floor, not “the economy” or “the market.” The belief that socialism can be achieved through Parliament is, therefore, naive in the extreme. Moreover, it perpetuates illusions in the significance of this kind of popular “representation.” In the first chapter of his book, The Workers’ Councils (Melbourne: 1950), Anton Pannekoek develops a similar analysis of the problems confronting socialist society. On the fundamental issues our points of view are very close. Bakunin once described the problem of socialism as being “to integrate individuals into structures which they could understand and control.” The words are to be found in “P... (From :


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